I don’t really like silent films on the whole, and this is known to most people who try to discuss early film with me. It’s not a prejudice without precedent for me, in that I’ve been bored by nearly every silent film I’ve ever tried to watch. I do know that once upon a time I felt black and white was intolerable (I don’t recall this explicitly, but I absolutely believe this was the case, knowing the progression of my tastes and the bemused accusations of my father), and I know that I once decided to watch the 1925 Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera in my youth and it simply couldn’t hold my (extremely youthful) attention. It isn’t until right now that I realize I was strangely open to the idea of trying a silent film even then, but it occurs to me that is the case. The last silent film I tried to watch (and did, in fact, get all the way through) was Paul Leni’s Conrad Veidt-starring Victor Hugo adaptation* from 1928, The Man Who Laughs. This was, though, one of my notoriously obnoxious theatrical (yes, theatrical!) experiences, with an audience of then-fellow college students who could not stop laughing at the idea of a dog named Homo, as if there couldn’t be any other meaning–and as if it could somehow continue to be funny after the first time. The film dragged for me, but it was a viewing mixed with increasing frustration and anger at the audience around me, which tends to make me want to leave and write incensed words to vent out the endless frustration (unless, of course, I release it via my occasional loud and profane requests for the audience to please be quiet–in far different terms). I picked up the Alfred Hitchcock Premier Collection, though, which collects many of his MGM-produced (or formerly owned, at least) films, including this one. I’ve been meaning to give another go to silent film and figured Hitchcock would be a good starting place for it.
The town of London is rocked by a continuing streak of murders on Tuesday nights that all take fair-haired women as their victims, bringing to mind the Whitechapel Murders (a legend about these being what the story was actually based on). A woman witnesses the most recent, telling the police that the man responsible is a tall man with the lower half of his face covered, the only clue to accompany the notes left on the victims: a note with a triangle, in the centre of which is written “The Avenger,” giving the murderer his name. The owners of a lodging house, Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault) and her husband (Arthur Chesney), take in a strange lodger (Ivor Novello) whose face is half-covered, to the amusement of their fair-haired daughter Daisy (June–just June), and the annoyance of the Daisy-courting policeman Joe (Malcolm Keen). Mysterious in all his actions, but suggestive of a role in the murders, the lodger captures the heart of Daisy and the suspicion of the landlady and Joe.
It’s hard to look at films that are over eighty years old and make declarations about the things they did that other films didn’t, because, of course, I don’t know enough about the time period to be nailing down such things. This is, however, recognized as the “first Hitchcock film,” despite being the third that he directed, even by Hitchcock himself. There is a hint of his work, or at least his later collaborations with Saul Bass, in a rather smart little opening credit-ish sequence (before there was such a thing in common use, I think I can say confidently) with a radial sweep opening over a static, abstract image to open the film. There are also some very creative touches, from the pacing of the lodger being filmed from below via a plate glass “floor” matched to a chandelier below it, using double exposure as the owning tenants look up and wonder at the pacing that causes the chandelier to shake. As Joe ponders his suspicions of the lodger, he looks at his footprint and across it float more double-exposed images of the clues that suggest his guilt. More subtly, there are clever shots like the image of a hand following a banister down a staircase, without any visual of the person attached to it, which gives a far more potent image to the shot than the simple one of a person walking down them.
There’s a clever play on sympathies as the policeman, Joe, is shown to be an egocentric jerk, sure of his position in Daisy’s life while ignoring her own feelings, yet giving our suspected murderer an air of sympathy that makes us wonder how on earth he can really be the murderer–even as he hides paintings of golden-haired women from his sight and fawns over Daisy’s hair, or brandishes a knife toward her in a suggestive moment. Of course, this has the faint odour of studio interference (which I’ve since discovered was an accurate impression), in making then-heartthrob Ivor Novello almost contractually sympathetic. Even with this requirement, Hitchcock, consummate professional, takes a route dissimilar to Kubrick’s and puts work into establishing the character as just that–sympathetic, rather than taking the twisted method of making him unsympathetic, but perhaps innocent.
As my discussion of sympathy may suggest to anyone paying attention–yes, this film is actually very engaging. I watched it with, I believe, Ashley Irwin’s 1999 score that celebrated Hitchcock’s (theoretical) hundredth birthday (knowing neither it nor the also-included 1997 Paul Zaza score, I opted to simply play it with whatever the default was), which was quite good and well-scored, with a lovely little musical phrase to accompany the oft-repeated blinking title card that said “To-Night Golden Curls.”** Ivor was appreciably handsome, and Joe somewhat unpleasant, but both actors served to enhance these impressions with their performances, Joe playing an early form of the macho braggart and Ivor the quietly lethal but more honest social-inferior. It does incorporate, as was noted by commentators (and obvious in retrospect to me), some themes that Hitchcock would later play with more, such as pursuit of the wrong man (hmm, now why does that phrase sound familiar while discussing Hitchcock? Hmm…) and a fetishistic approach to women–here, of course, blonds.
This is probably not a bad film to start off someone with an open mind to silent films with, as I like to think I could be reasonably considered. It doesn’t feel overlong (though I dreaded the idea of a 100 minute silent film at first, I began to worry there was not enough time to wrap up the story toward the end), and is quite nicely paced once the audience catches up to it.
*Yeah, I felt the need to work in all three names. Deal with it.
**Not to be confused with station bumpers you might’ve seen on NBC in the late 1980s.